The holidays are over and many snowbirds will be looking to get out of the frigid climes. Everyone expects the people of Cleveland and Buffalo to start heading south, but this winter, we can probably also include a good number of folks from D.C., Virginia and even North Carolina as well. So where do you head?
Florida is the obvious destination for most of those who want to stay stateside, but just where in this huge, wonderful state will you land. A not-so-well known area near Sarasota could be your special destination.
Just like a magical key is used to unlock a treasure chest, so Longboat Key is your ticket to a magical vacation. Just 12 miles from downtown Sarasota, this pristine barrier island sits on the west coast of Florida. North of Cape Coral and south of Tampa, it’s a relaxed location – close to whatever attractions you fancy, but out of the traffic and the hustle of typical vacation destinations.
For starters, if you are looking to relax and unwind for a week or even a weekend, you’d be well advised to check out the charming Sandpiper Inn. On a secluded stretch of beach, each ground-level apartment offers a glimpse of the ocean from your own private patio outside your front door. Each room is extremely spacious and offers wi-fi, cable TV and DVD player, as well as all the vacation kitchen necessities. It’s a great base of operations as you explore the surrounding area. A large cabana, a small pool and a waterfall all provide great places to relax outdoors. Contact Richard and Mary Lou, the innkeepers to see if they have availability for your selected dates.
What to do while you’re there:
Shopping Walk across the street to some neighborhood shops or drive 13 minutes south to St. Armand Circle where you’ll find over 100 boutique shops just made for wandering. With the feel of an elegant European marketplace, you could spend hours here.
Cruising With all the water around you, you can’t possibly spend all your time on land. Contact Jimmy Seaton with Liquid Limousine Charters and spend an unforgettable cruise on the Sarasota Bay. Whether you prefer watching birds, nature or seaside real estate; a sunset cruise can’t be beat. Jimmy can also arrange land and air limos as well. He’s the perfect host for that special evening on the water.
Fishing You’ve got the whole Gulf of Mexico at your doorstep; why not grab a rod and cast out to see what you’ll be able to bring ashore? Oh, you didn’t bring your surfcasting rod. No problem, Captain Mark Gore can handle everything you need. Coming from three generations of hunters and fishermen, Mark’s family offers complete service hunting and fishing sessions. He provides everything from your fishing license to your rod and reel. Learn to catch your own bait with a cast net, and then spend the morning hauling in one fish after another.
Maybe you prefer your fish behind glass. If so, the Mote Aquarium is a quick drive and an afternoon of fun. From the Shark Zone to the Dolphin Lagoon, you’ll meet them all. You’ll get up close and personal with giant sea turtles, harmless stingrays and manatees. In the laboratory, you’ll see marine research being done first hand. When you’ve finished walking the building, go outside, down the sidewalk and enter building number two. The fun goes on and on.
Dining For yet others, chances are you’d rather just see your fish on a plate, artfully prepared and placed in front of you – for dinner. Longboat Key will be a dream come true for you. The number of “not-to-be-missed” dining establishments is so long, you’ll need a few days just to make the rounds.
I’d start at the aforementioned St. Armand's Circle and stop in for lunch or dinner at Columbia Restaurant. Columbia is Sarasota’s oldest restaurant, celebrating its 50th anniversary back in 2009. Their sister restaurant in Ybor City is the oldest restaurant in the state and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. From October through May, you’ll get to feast on their famous Stone Crabs, fresh from the Gulf. Try them Carioca style for the authentic Latin spices. Also be sure to try their 1905 salad, named “One of America’s Top 10 Best Salads.”
Just south of the Sandpiper, you’ll find PattiGeorge’s on the opposite side of Gulf of Mexico Drive. This rustic restaurant is perched right over the Sarasota Bay with a wrap-around view of the water. The menu is extensive, with more influences than you'd expect to find in a local establishment. Select from their Italian, Asian and exciting Caribbean and Latin American dishes. Award-winning chef and proprietor, Tommy Klauber brings years of experience from France, Amsterdam and then Aspen, before opening PG’s in Longboat Key. If the weather outside is too hot, or there’s a touch of inclement, this indoor dining spot is where I’d want to spend my evening.
Heading north of the Sandpiper, you’ll need to set your GPS to find Mar Vista Restaurant. Tucked away along the water’s edge, this unpretentious eatery is where the locals go for great food. The building has been there since 1912 and sports a weathered façade. Don’t let the exterior fool you. Sitting under the twisted trees, you’ll delight in this quiet, charming setting for good conversation and wonderful food. With their 14 slip boat dock, a good number of boaters are liable to head for marker 39 and drop in for dinner. Ask if Chef George Quattromani has any daily specials; but if not, you can’t go wrong with the Parmesan Crusted Flounder. Just the right amount of breading, not overdone, and cooked to tender perfection. Also, take advantage of their extensive wine selection.
Further up, along the Gulf coast on Anna Maria Island, you’ll also want to experience The BeachHouse. Located directly on the beach, the property stretches 650 feet along the sand with a huge covered deck that reaches each end of the building. Chef Will Manson doesn’t make it easy on you when it comes to menu selections. There are so many wonderful entrees that it will take a while to narrow down your choices. If you can’t decide, try the Seafood Medley for a blend of crab cakes, shrimp, fish and scallops. Or, why not try what I’ve always wanted to do, make an evening out of just drinks and appetizers? Their conch fritters, calamari, coconut shrimp and wings won’t disappoint.
A walk in the park With all that great food, you better budget some time for a walk. Two attractions will make that walk seem downright enjoyable. Closest to Longboat Key is the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. For the past 35 years, this garden has literally been growing to perfection. Much of their collection can be found in the greenhouse, including my all-time favorite collection of bonsai trees in their Sho Fu Bonsai exhibit. But outside, be prepared to wander amongst an incredible collection of banyan trees (with their roots-gone-wild), the towering bamboo garden, the hibiscus garden and the first A.D.A. accessible canopy walkway in the US. Plan two to three hours at least to appreciate all that Selby Gardens has to offer.
Another canopy walkway is available about an hour away in Myakka River State Park. This walkway truly takes you across the canopy at tree top level. The seventy-foot tall tower gives you a commanding view of the park and its surrounds. Head further into the park on the seven mile scenic drive and jump on one of two large airboats for a cruise in search of alligators, anhinga and sandhill cranes. One of Florida’s oldest state parks, Myakka is great for hiking, biking or kayaking. Rentals are available at one of two gift shops in the park.
Nestled between the deep, warm waters of the Gulf and the shallow, kayak-friendly waters of Sarasota Bay, you’re guaranteed to find a patch of sugary-white beach you’ll want to return to year after year. Whether you choose to walk, sail, cast, wander, climb or dine; you’ll be glad you tried something new around Longboat Key.
Before you go, check these links to help plan your trip:
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